Monday, June 24, 2013

Summer Solstice and the Moon

Do you ever wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always wait for the longest day of the year and then miss it.

                                                                                       The Great Gatsby

I didn't miss the longest day of the year this time. I very nearly would have after waiting two months for it, but the beautiful Google doodle reminded me just in time that the summer solstice had already begun. Earlier this month, when I was reading the first book of Parade's End (Some Do Not . . .), I had vowed that I would wake up at the crack of dawn to witness the beginning of the longest day of the year and attempt to gauge a quarter of Valentine's thrill at the rising sun. Of course she had spent a whole night with that Tory ox Christopher Tietjens, getting lost in the fog in the country lanes of Sussex, and seeing the fog lift magically with the rising sun as the longest day of the year unfolded. That would definitely seem blissful. As it appeared, I would have to wait for another year to be privy to that magic in the sky (without Tietjens of course). I spent an unremarkable 20th June -- unremarkable enough to forget all about it now -- and woke up when the boring humid morning had peered through all the crevices between my curtains, and yet another day had unfolded; but for the doodle, and the sudden remembering.

"The sun!" she said pointing. Above the silver horizon was the sun; not the red sun: shining, burnished.
"I don't see . . ." Tietjens said.
"What there is to laugh at?" she asked. "It's the day! . . . The longest day's begun! . . . And tomorrow's as long . . . The summer solstice, you know . . . And tomorrow the days shorten towards winter. But tomorrow's as long . . . I'm so glad . . ."
"That we've got through the night? . . ." Tietjens asked.

Once I made the discovery and had completed all my literary associations with the solstice, I spent a dizzy morning. I was dizzy with happiness to be aware of the change of seasons in nature, to be aware of how the universe moves on without our realising it. I was rather surprised at not having any one else notice or comment upon the significance of the day, the significance of having daylight for a very long time. While I was teaching, I looked at my students, and their absolute apathy to the higher working of the world surprised me. At least they were learning geography. When we were in school and learning geography, we would often realise with a bolt during the morning assembly that this would be the longest day of the year -- the one which the textbooks mentioned (the catholic school was obviously closed during the winter solstice). It thrilled me to find myself alive when beautiful creative changes went on in the greater world, in the realms of physics, without the interference of man. None of my students seemed to think along those lines.

On the way home I visited a relative in the nursing home, and my heart sang all the way back. It was past 6 pm and there was still bright light. I would keep a track how long it'd stay tonight. The Europeans are blessed with long summer evenings, with daylight lasting until 10 or 11 pm. I remember walking down the Champs Elysee at 8 and calling up my parents to say that it seemed as if it was still afternoon. Our tropics are not so abundantly blessed. By the time I reached home, the sky was welling up with clouds. I didn't know what this would eventually mean, and set about brewing the tea. By the time I carried my cup to my room, it had begun to drizzle, and I realised that I had been tricked. It was just after 6.30, and it was dark outside. As dark as any other ordinary monsoon evening.



I learnt from Facebook that the night following the summer solstice would be the night of the 'Super Moon' -- a banal term for some thing as grand as what I saw peeping from my gate before locking up that night. From posts the following night, I learnt that the 'Super Moon' would be visible the following night too, in some parts of the world. If I was lucky, I'd get a second chance to see how large the moon looked as it came closest to the Earth in many years. I was tricked again, of course -- it was a dark and stormy night. I lamented over it for twenty four hours, until tonight. After watching The Naked Civil Servant and letting myself be moved to the point of clapping, laughter, tears, and constricted neck muscles at several points, and feeling how pointless life was turning out to be, I called up a friend and indulged in existential angst. Having spelled out that our meagre lives was not turning out to be as we had hoped, and nothing could possibly be worse than being poor, I decided that I definitely needed some air. As I lit the lights of the porch, the grass outside my gate looked an unearthly green. This is what steady rains do to unwanted weeds -- they grow overnight and acquire an unearthly colour. I put the earphones into my ear and started walking. My entire neighbourhood had already turned in by 9.30 pm, or they were making a very good show of it: there wasn't the slightest sound to suggest human life. After bearing with second grade radio, I played Ali Akbar Khan's Darbari Kanra, stood in the middle of the lane, and turned to look at the moon.

Ustad Ali Akbar Khan plays a long lingering alaap to the raag, and each of his renditions differs slightly. I was listening to my favourite and watching the moon go in and come out of clouds. It seemed as if the moon was moving. I started walking and it followed me, gallivanting between the patch of sky between the Bhattacharjee terrace and the ugly new construction. It reminded me of our road trips from Siliguri to Calcutta in the 90s, when we would start before dawn, and I would watch the moon from the car window follow us along ugly highways as dawn broke in and sleep rolled into my eyes. With considerable amusement I noticed that the surface of the moon looked like an irritated man's face, blowing air. The Doctor would have said that the moon people have a special festival today; or it could be my imagination, weighed down by my subconscious, thinking of the 280 new craters discovered on the moon. Bengali folklore talks about an old lady sitting on the moon and spinning yards of cloth. I remember another folklore from my kindergarten about the man on the moon with his dog. Then came of course the numerous western myths surrounding the moon and its captivating lights. All these seemed amusing to me tonight, though not without a hint of regret and self-reproach at not having read more about Demonologie and the infernal powers of the moon when I had the opportunity. Time goes by. Darbari Kanra came to an end, and I tore my gaze from the moon and turned back to my empty house. Back once again to the closed walls, pointless lives, lots of contrition, and the firm conviction that days blend into one another especially during the solstice.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Father's Day, 2013

Like many other people, I do not believe in commemorating a single day to celebrate love -- romantic or filial. I'd infinitely prefer to keep on loving the entire year round, than make some one feel special one day and then drive away and forget about him/her for the rest of the year. Today is International Father's Day, and of course the internet has gone berserk with every one suddenly remembering their fathers, and posting how much they love them. Although more than once today, I've had Sylvia Plath's 'Daddy' thrust into my face, I must admit, some personal pictures and words posted by friends and acquaintances online are beautiful. However there are some which I find quite funny and a little bit rubbish. A girl posts about all the shopping she's doing in a mall, when she remembers that it's Father's Day (presumably by the sudden influx of photos in her own timeline), and quickly browsing through the media folder in her cell phone, retrieves a photograph with her father, posts it with the mandatory "luv u" words, imperfect spelling and punctuation in tow, and goes back to shopping.

I didn't wish my Baba a Happy Father's Day, because I didn't feel the need to. I often tell him through phone calls, texts, and in person, how important he is to me. I avoided the pageantry on this day, just as I avoided it on Mother's Day. I had a normal conversation a couple of times today -- just as routine and irritating as it is the rest of the year. I often try to diagnose the reason for the sudden irritation, and the only answer that stares at me is the fact that I've grown up too much and too soon, while my parents have remained stuck in a little town in a past decade. We barely see eye to eye on any thing; they keep interrupting me when I'm working; we speak different languages; they watch revolting populist television; they fail to see through people and trust every one blindingly, despite my warning them; Baba religiously sends thought-provoking texts in the wee hours of every morning (who does that?); reads quotations by famous writers and then texts them at night; we argue relentlessly on our differing political ideologies; he turns in very early every night and insists that every one should too; is extremely nagging at the dinner table about eating more fish and chicken and veggies; he fears ghosts and has a phobia of enclosed spaces, and so on and so forth. This summer I was finally forced to accept that I have moved on -- too far for my parents to keep up with me.

And then, as I was languishing on this still and muggy evening, I came across a few random posts online. I realised that if I was ever asked to choose, I'd select Atticus Finch as my favourite fictional father. Another post reminded me of the final snapshot from Mary Poppins and the song Let's Fly a Kite. Favourite literature had made me soppy, and with barely an hour until midnight, I sent a mail to my old man, attaching a link to a song with specific instructions on how to open the link and listen to it. I know that he won't check his mails any more tonight -- it being way past his bedtime hour -- but I couldn't help but drop in the words 'Happy Father's Day' in the subject bar. Since then, I've been listening to the song, and wondering that it always wasn't this bad.

The song is:


It'd be a pity if you didn't understand Bengali, because the middle-class sentiments expressed in this song, from the bun (hair and not food) to the kohl, to the father calling his little girl, is untranslatable into English.

As I listen to this song on a loop tonight, and read and hear the myriad emotions this song brings to the minds of friends and strangers, I realise with unbridled happiness that most of us have had a similar kind of a sentimental, and innocent childhood. The deep voice of Hemanta Mukhopadhyay, whose birthday is today, stands for the quintessential nostalgia of Bengalis for their childhood and for their last century morals, which have been quite lost now.

There are many things I miss too. But things change, time goes on, innit? Happy Father's Day!

And Happy Birthday, Hemanta Babu. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Of Birds and Bird-calls

Last morning I was reluctantly getting some housework done, when I was roused from my indifference by the shrill call of a bird. Unlike my seventy-two year old teacher, who needs but listen to one bird-call to place the exact name and species of the bird, and who can softly whistle to lure birds to her window to admire them, I cannot, for the life of me, identify birds, or their calls. Having spent most of my life on the outskirts of little towns and overpopulated cities, I have been subjected to birds quite naturally, and hence like one who is so frequently exposed to beauty that (s)he takes it for granted, I took my daily dose of bird chirping with indifference and apathy. Until yesterday, that is. Feeling slightly irritated at my life-long inability to appreciate some thing that is close at hand, the call of the bird flung me through a labyrinthe of memories, and experiences, and observations. Although I still cannot remember the names of most birds that I've seen in my life, or their characteristic calls, I do recall what they looked like, and the curious set of circumstances that often accompanied their involvement with me.

Growing up in a quiet household of expat parents, the one bird that was often romanticised was the cuckoo. I had never heard a cuckoo's beautiful call in my childhood, and when I finally did hear it while visiting our ancestral home in Calcutta, I was thrilled. My cousin had suddenly barged into our room, and taken me by the hand to their balcony overlooking the road. Then he roughly pointed to a clump of trees in the distance and said, "Listen!" I remember my heart beating very fast and my jubilant cousin saying, "Have you ever heard that before? It's a cuckoo. It sings twice every day -- morning and evening. Stay back this time, and you'll get to hear it every day." And I did hear it every time I visited that house over the years. I had read all about cuckoos laying eggs in crows nests to avoid building nests of their own, and all my grandmother's jokes of cuckoos being lazy were lost on me. The Bengalis have an expression for a gifted singer, and the metaphor kokilkonthi draws on the sweet call of the cuckoo. The first few times when I heard the cuckoo in Panihati, my voice would choke at the beautiful yet sad call. When I moved into the neighbourhood years later, I would sometimes hear it, but the calls grew rare, until it stopped altogether. I now think it a testament to our old house: once so full of life and warmth and the call of the cuckoo, and now abandoned and silenced by death.

I should have technically begun this post with the book I received from our school principal on March 1995 for scoring very good marks in the finals despite having chicken pox. I remember feeling very happy and important to be gifted with books by our Sister Principal of whom we were mortally scared; and riding the autorickshaw home with Baba with a fixed smile on my face. Strangely enough, that book was full of little anecdotes about birds. I remember being a tad disappointed on discovering that it didn't have "proper stories"; nevertheless I read the book from cover to cover. I remember one particular anecdote about a city-dweller taking a vacation in the country to relax, and being awakened at the crack of dawn in the first morning by the shrill cries of various birds. He complained to his country-dwelling friends, and I remember laughing with them at his irritation at some thing so commonplace in my life.

Then there was the crane and the little Bengali rhyme that I had learnt perhaps nineteen years ago in our old house. Every morning, while my parents had tea, and I some boring health drink; as the sunshine poured though our open windows in the ground floor of our old house in North Bengal, my Maa would draw my attention to the crane that would come sweeping on the long, empty plots of land behind our house. She then taught me this rhyme,

Bok mama, bok mama,
Doodh diye jaa,
Narkol gaache poriya ache,
kuriya niya jaa.

Or perhaps something along those lines, I don't exactly remember. Bok being 'crane' in Bengali, and likening a crane to a maternal uncle shows the inherent Bengali affinity to familiarise animals into simple household customs, where every thing and every one is related to the family. I don't see cranes often now, and the cranes of my childhood quitted our neighbourhood once the real estate boom took over. 

I also remember the groups of little birds, often by the hundred, who would chirp loudly before dusk, and would make beautiful patterns every couple of minutes before resting on telephone poles and wires. I think they are called shaat bhai chowmpa in Bengali, but in all probability I'm wrong. I can now remember lying on our ground floor bed, all of six years old, and looking out of the open window on summer evenings to their staggering numbers singing chaotically and making majestic patterns as they flew. I can't remember how they finally vanished as darkness fell, and as my grandmother blew the conch shell in the next room to appease the gods at dusk.

Once for a school project we were asked to collect feathers of birds and label and paste them in a scrapbook. Unable to find any random feather that had dropped and was clean, I was finally taken to a shop which sold bronze utensils and colourful feathers. The proprietor was the father of a friend, and a friend of my father's, and he handed me an envelope containing beautiful feathers in bright colours of pink and yellow and green. When I asked him to which birds they belonged, he said, "Ask your father, he'll help you." The help comprised getting down our inherited Progressive dictionary, and finding out its entries about birds. We read about them together, and separated the feathers on the basis of their descriptions in the big book. By the end of the vacation my scrap book was full of beautiful feathers belonging to obscure birds who would never fly to a tropical country like the one I lived in. But I didn't mind. I was blissfully happy at having learnt the names of exotic birds, and having imagined their romantic, natural habitat. All of seven years old, I was already feeling a Sehnsucht for the places where these birds could be spotted.

My parents had box windows in their first floor room, and I would climb the bed to get to the window, and sitting comfortably, with my back to the sun, and legs dangling, would make up stories in my mind. One such day in '95 or '96, I discovered a nest behind the corner window with two little green eggs. I screamed and called Maa, who together with our odd jobs man, M, who was working, forbade me to touch the nest or the eggs, or they'd die. I solemnly swore that I wouldn't do such a thing, learnt that I was intruding into a family of sparrows, and fantasised a day in the life of a sparrow couple. Our prescribed school English reader, aptly named 'Gulmohar' had a story about a sparrow couple, and I read it again and again to acquaint myself with the daily chores and loves of sparrows. For many days I would visit the window and check on the eggs, waiting for the parents to return, for the eggs to hatch, and hoping to watch the parents feeding the chicks just as I had seen in the pictures. However, I never did find the couple. Once my school reopened, my visits became irregular, till one weekend I discovered that the nest had gone. M told me that there must have been some accident, and the eggs had rolled and fallen down. I had cried myself to sleep that night, and had held myself responsible for the death of the unborn chicks.

Yet Calcutta, with its old world hangover and crowded houses was not altogether corrupt. My best memories of my Mama-r bari are sitting in the balcony at night, while the family has a late dinner, and most of the para is asleep, and staring at the ancient Neem tree of the house opposite, whose branches spread across the road and can be touched from the balcony. The tree still stands, although most of the old houses in the road don't, and it was in those nights that I spotted birds' nests from such close quarters. The branches were full of crows nests, and they cawed from early in the morning. Still being city birds, they didn't fall asleep with dusk, but were quite active until late at night. When they had babies, I saw the hungry chicks waiting for their parents, and saw the latter continuously flying in and out at all times of the day. I would think of them in Berlin every time I'd see repulsive hairy ravens. 

I was still mortally afraid of eagles and kites; and at school, we'd often mistake the latter for the former. During the drills practice for Sports Day, we would often notice kites circling the sky overhead, mistaking lying children for corpses. The thought sent a shiver through my spine. Once driving to the forest near our home, we crossed a Zoroastrian cemetery, and I saw many vultures roosting around. I hated them, and was glad to drive away.

And then, at the beginning of the last decade, a pair of beautiful birds came to build home in our garden. Maa said that they were dahuk birds, but to me they looked like pretty black cranes. The pair had built a nest behind our swimming pool, and though I'd never actually seen their nest, we could see them at all times of the day, strolling around the pool. They eventually got friendly, and wouldn't mind walking around with us when we worked in the garden. They stayed for many years until Maa said that an evil snake had crept into our garden and had  eaten the couple. I was in Calcutta by then, and though distance and the news breaking over the telephone diluted the emotions, I did go to bed feeling sad at having lost yet another thing close to my childhood.

This was how it gradually came to be that I stopped noticing birds and their calls. Living in an unremarkable big-small town takes the mind off noticing little epiphanies. Yet at times, you have mornings like yesterday, when you're awoken from a reverie by the call of an unknown bird, and hark back to times when you marvelled at the tail of a bird that was calling in your garden, laughed when you learnt that the bird was called 'Bulbuli', and woke up at all hours of the night to cries of owls, and ran to your terrace to find so many of them sitting majestically. You even had the gall to name one white owl (or a lokkhi pyancha) Hedwig, before it scornfully turned its head towards you and flew away.

I sign off tonight with this brilliant video from BBC's Earthflight showing starlings flying in Rome before dusk, and a peregrine chasing them in vain. It's narrated by my favourite Scotsman, David Tennant.